Air Pollution

Swedes Take the Lead on Climate Needs

Sweden is setting the global standard when it comes to cutting down on carbon emissions. Could Canada follow suit?


Sweden is known for many things globally, but above all, the highly progressive politics characteristic of the Nordic bloc is a proud feature of this country. Two weeks ago, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly in favour of shortening the time frame of their emissions target by five years – down from the original date of 2050 as set out in Paris; a first for any of the countries involved.

By going the extra mile here, Sweden hopes to become a trendsetter, and they have called on other nations to follow their lead. Their bold ambition may very well be what is needed to cover the ground lost by Trump’s abandonment.

So what prompted this action and where does Canada stand on the matter?

Quite significantly, Sweden’s unusually powerful green lobby enjoys widespread support among both industry and the general public. Hydropower and nuclear plants already supply Sweden with 83% of its energy needs, and the country plans on further tackling carbon emissions using biofuels and electric vehicles. Windpower Intelligence has reported that the Swedes already have 6.5 gigawatts worth of wind capacity installed across the country – a high figure in relation to the size of their population.

In January, Sweden’s parliamentary energy commission published a roadmap titled ‘100% renewable energy production by 2040’. They proposed that a market-based support scheme and tax cuts for offshore installations would work wonders for renewable energy production and foreign direct investment, progressively moving Sweden away from its reliance on the likes of nuclear power.

Power of absorption
Canada’s CO2 emissions have risen by 18% since 1990, and total energy consumption supersedes the entirety of Africa annually. But voices have emerged decrying the alleged ignorance towards absorption in calculations for CO2 contributions.

“Politically, [Sweden 2045] is a great precedent and something that all countries will need to do soon to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement. But the details are key: what role will offsets and sinks play? What kind of offsets? From where? How are forests and sinks going to be accounted for? Carbon neutral doesn’t always mean carbon neutral,” says Aki Kachi, International Policy Director at Carbon Market Watch.

Writing for the Financial Post last year, F. Larry Martin, ex-deputy minister to the premier of Saskatchewan, said that the carbon tax proposal “is a futile policy based on a half-blind approach that only considers emissions from our resources, not absorption from our land and forests.”

Indeed, the Global Carbon Project’s 2014 report totalled human-sourced carbon emissions at 36 billion tonnes, with 64% being absorbed by water bodies and land via the sequestration capacities of plants.

Shrugging responsibility on account of a nation’s absorption capacity as per Martin’s view is contentious, however, as completely phasing out dirty energy is the long term goal. Canada may eventually shoot itself in the foot by aspiring towards short-term self-exceptionalism on account of circumstantial luck and geographic vastness.

“To stabilize the climate, the globe needs to get its net carbon dioxide emissions to zero – a goal for the second half of this century under the Paris Agreement,” says Robert Kopp, Director of the Institute of Earth, Ocean & Atmospheric Sciences.

Beetles and burnings
Relying on vast forests is not reliable either – take what happened in 1999 with BC’s Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic. 750 million cubic metres of commercial pine were lost, contributing far more CO2 to our net total than it subtracted. On top of that, you have to consider the potential fluxes that wildfires threaten, and we can expect more of them as the warming continues.

“Could Canada do the same? It will be more challenging for us, given that we are a major producer of hydrocarbons, particularly in the Alberta tar sands. It’s a challenge that will be very difficult to overcome, and one that Sweden doesn’t face. However, taxing carbon emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels will change the economics – that, too, is an option that Canada needs more vigorously to explore,” says Thomas F. Pedersen, Professor, Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of Victoria.

This year, a group of 72 academics and scholars from across the country published a report outlining Canada’s potential roadmap towards mid-century decarbonisation. Reenergizing Canada: Pathways to a Low-Carbon Future uses peer-reviewed research and data to make the authors’ case, describing what is imperative to facilitate such a drastic transition.

“Our calculations in the full report are clear: The current ambition of low-carbon policies and measures will not allow us to reach our destination – a world that will have avoided a global temperature increment greater than two degrees Celsius,” say the authors.

The academic word
The three phases proposed in the report begin with 2017 to 2020, the preparation phase, where a joint task force and an independent commission can report to the Prime Minister and a high-level cabinet on milestones, failures, and everything in between. Increased funding for research would explore novel technologies and social practices for the sake of understanding the challenges of wider integration.

In the next phase, the ‘early implementation’ between 2020 and 2030, the group envisions a broad use of low-carbon energy options spearheading the process. “Hydroelectricity, mature variable renewables such as solar and wind, emergent renewables like wave, tidal, geothermal and biomass, low-carbon fuels, waste reuse, nuclear and carbon capture and storage will be the way forward,” according to the report.

They also call for the stronger implementation of policy frameworks such as carbon taxing and regulation to redirect consumer preferences via the market. Learning to manage tensions between the state and industrial lobby groups will be critical, and that is where the proposal for retraining programs comes in. Oil and gas workers won’t be hung out to dry in an era of such momentous change, and industries would be subsidized to shift their focus to renewables.

The final chapter is the ‘deep decarbonisation’ from 2030 to 2050, and the authors expect an 80% reduction of CO2 megatonnes by the end of this process.  “Key to the success of the low-carbon energy transition is a simple fact: emission reductions need to add up to the target pledged while ensuring a development that is truly sustainable,” they add.

And therein lies the heart of the perennial tension between factions: can we make climate policy sustainable or is this just the fanciful utopian conception of academics? Can we handle the fossil fuel industry crashing and losing trillions in value as the switchover happens? And are we fooling ourselves to think we can pull off such a magnitude of change without certain areas, workers, communities, or entire provinces taking a devastating economic hit? Whatever side of the argument you fall on, the extremity of push and pull factors at least means that the final shape of Canadian policy toward 2050 remains unwritten.

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Barry is a journalist, editor, and marketer for several media outlets including HeadStuff, The Media Editor, and Buttonmasher Magazine. He earned his Master of the Arts in Journalism from Dublin City University in 2017 and moved to Toronto to pursue a career in the media. Barry is passionate about communicating and debating culture, science, and politics and their collective global impact.